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For Love of Nature: A day on the James brings surprises
For Love of Nature

For Love of Nature: A day on the James brings surprises

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As we launched our canoe and paddled upstream from Big Island, we left the main stem of the James River and felt miles from civilization.

The island that protected us from the noise on U.S. 501 also provided shelter from most signs of humans.

The cool air and clear sky made for a perfect day for paddling. We were serenaded by cicadas and the occasional honking of two Canada geese swimming ahead of us.

Water lapped softly against the bow of the canoe as we made our way toward the Blue Ridge Parkway.

We were startled to see a dock and small house on the island. Who owns this hideaway?

As we made our way past the island, the Parkway bridge, which carries cars on the upper level and pedestrians on the lower level, came into view.

The cliff swallows that nest there have already left for the season, and the air was remarkably empty of life.

An occasional dragonfly flew by, but otherwise all was still. Only one small turtle plopped off a log into the murky water.

We stayed on the right bank and soon were paddling along high cliffs with their impressive rock walls.

Finally we spied some birds above: cedar waxwings performing aerial tricks as they snatched invisible insects from the air before returning to perches high in the sycamores and poplars along the river’s edge.

We pulled off on a sandbar to stretch and saw dark circles in the water. They appeared to be tiny schools of fish, but these creatures were on top of the water. They had to be some variety of water beetles.

The pebbly shoreline was filled with small minnows, a perfect fishing spot for herons, and sure enough, a green heron suddenly appeared, wading along the shore with its long yellow legs and peering in the water with its yellow-ringed eyes.

Green herons are the smallest of our herons. This was a young bird because its rufous-colored neck was flecked with white, which disappears as it matures. Their backs are green, but in the right light appear blue.

The heron largely ignored us, flying closer to land on a large rock. As it peered over the edge, it suddenly plunged headfirst into the water, creating a large splash, but it came up with an empty bill.

As we continued upstream, I heard a large rustling to my right and saw a bear cub plunge into the water, swim a few feet and scamper back up the steep bank, disappearing into the thick undergrowth.

Michael was bemoaning the fact that we had not seen a bald eagle when he suddenly yelled, “Eagle!” A gorgeous mature adult flew above our heads with bright white head and tail glinting in the sun.

A great blue heron was our only significant sighting on the trip downstream until it was my turn to yell: “Mink!” We followed the sleek, dark animal as he scampered along the shore.

Bear. Eagle. Mink. Who could ask for more?

Shannon Brennan can be reached at


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